Roan Plateau rethinking: Drilling delay prompts pouting, applause

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The Bureau of Land Management's decision late last week to seek additional environmental study of possible impacts of oil and gas exploration on the Roan Plateau has left energy interests fuming and sulking over the continued delays in tapping the area's rich gas reserves -- and enviro activists crunching numbers to show that the industry's production woes can't be blamed on the BLM's reluctance to open the sensitive plateau to wide-scale drilling.

The agency's decision comes six months after U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that the BLM hadn't properly explored all alternatives in its 2007 plan to open up the plateau to leasing. BLM now says it will do additional study on air quality, wildlife habitat, directional drilling, and other issues surrounding the plan. (Information on the process and how to file public comments can be found on the BLM's Roan EIS page.)

Energy companies have been salivating over the Roan's prospects since the first term of George W. Bush. But, as pointed out in my 2004 feature "Raiding the Roan," the plateau, while never designated as wilderness, has become one of the most prominent refuges on the Western Slope for black bears and eagles, rare plants and toads, and the world's purest strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout.

To the folks over at the Western Energy Alliance, though, all this hand-wringing over the other natural resources found on the plateau is just so much "misguided" federal policy that's hindering the state's economic growth and job creation. "It's now been over fifteen years since Congress mandated that the natural gas on the Roan Plateau be developed," WEA veep Kathleen Sgamma declared in a prepared statement. "BLM spent an exhaustive eight years conducting in-depth environmental analysis, and a judge found only minor deficiencies in their plan, which can be corrected relatively quickly. Rather than making the adjustments...Interior has decided to go back to the beginning.... This is yet another example of why production of natural gas on public lands is down, even as overall production on private lands has increased dramatically."

Sgamma points out that the plateau already has drill sites on private land and that the BLM plan would keep about half the public land on top off limits, with various restrictions on drilling elsewhere.

But the counter-spin to the industry pout, courtesy of the Center for Western Priorities, is that the drilling slowdown across Colorado's Western Slope isn't about federal red tape versus private lands, but rather depressed prices for natural gas. The drop-off -- a 45 percent decrease in 2012 in Garfield County, for example, compared to the number of wells drilled in 2010 and 2011 -- is largely a shift from gas production (which ramped up considerably in the Obama years, driving down the price despite all the moaning about government obstructionism) to more profitable ventures in crude oil. Even the Bill Barrett Corporation, one of the chief players in the Roan gas leases, admits in its second quarter report to investors that low prices for natural gas are prompting a focus on "building the oil component of our portfolio."

As long as gas stays cheap, the special challenges of drilling the Roan may well prove prohibitive. And that buys more time for the BLM to figure out a way to satisfy the judge and the Roan's constituency of local tourism interests and environmental activists -- even if the trade groups continue to sulk it out.

More from our Environment archive: "Roan Plateau: Bush-era drilling plan foiled again."

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